The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games will renew some classic sitting volleyball rivalries, while other teams look to make Paralympic history. Here are nine athletes who can be part of those storylines starting tomorrow.
Monique Matthews (née Burkland) (USA)
The USA has made a continual rise in women’s sitting volleyball at every Paralympic Games since the sport’s introduction at Athens 2004, and Matthews has been a key part of that success.
The outside hitter made her Paralympic debut at London 2012 where the US finished with silver after a loss to China. She had 31 points on 23 kills, six blocks and two aces at her first Games. But the talented hitter, who is a rock in at the net, was integral to her country reversing the result against China with a 3-0 win to capture gold at Rio 2016. A World Championship title however still eludes the USA, as they were beaten by Russia in 2018.
An excellent all-round competitor, Matthews was named USA Volleyball Female Sitting Volleyball Player of the Year in 2019 and was selected as the best server at the World ParaVolley World Super 6 as USA won gold with a 7-0 record.
Matthews was an all-state softball player and also participated in athletics and basketball before she was introduced to sitting volleyball after a workplace accident that had her left leg amputated.
Mirzet Duran (BIH)
Duran led Bosnia and Herzegovina to qualify at another Paralympic Games when they won silver at the 2018 Worlds after falling to rival Iran in the final.
Tokyo 2020 will be Duran’s fourth Paralympics, having made his debut in the side that won silver at Beijing 2008. Four years later at London 2012, Duran and his teammates were at the top of the podium as Bosnia and Herzegovina won its second Paralympic gold medal in sitting volleyball. He was also named best hitter for the tournament.
Duran was part of the team that claimed silver at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games as Iran reversed the result from London. He finished as the best server of the tournament. The two rivals have faced each other in the final at every Games since Sydney 2000, and Tokyo 2020 is expected to be no different.
Duran took up the sport in 2003 after a coach from his club OKI Fantomi Sarajevo invited him to try it and he has proven his leadership qualities having captained the team for almost a decade.
Tang Xuemei (CHN)
Tang is part of a Chinese sitting volleyball team with a strong history of success. The nation had won every Paralympic title since 2004 until Rio 2016, when they lost to the USA in the final.
Tang joined the national squad in their golden triumph at London 2012. It was fulfilling after having lost her leg at 14 in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, China’s deadliest one to date.
She accepted the chance to train for Shanghai’s women’s team. Already athletic, having played basketball and table tennis, sitting volleyball came naturally to her. After the regular training sessions in the morning and afternoon, she would give herself extra practice at night, repeating what she had not mastered during the day.
Tang’s progress was so rapid that she joined the national team a year later and featured at the 2010 World Championships. Then in 2012, she competed at her first Games where she won gold. She was not part of the squad that took silver at Rio 2016 but looks to help China find redemption in Tokyo.
Hesham Elshwikh (EGY)
Egypt have repeatedly finished among the top teams at major international competitions in recent years, and Elshwikh’s outstanding leadership has been a key factor.
After a tough 2018 Worlds campaign, which saw them finish fifth, Egypt responded to take out the 2019 African Zonal Championships, their third in a row, to qualify for a sixth straight Paralympics. Egypt recorded a memorable victory in the bronze medal game at Rio 2016 against Brazil, recovering from two sets to one down to win; thus adding to its bronze at Athens 2004, of which Elshwikh was also a part of.
He was the fifth best scorer at Rio 2016 with 48 spikes and 11 blocks. Egypt have also enjoyed success at World Championships with Elshwikh on the team, winning bronze in 2006 and 2010.
Suellen Cristine Dellangelica Lima (BRA)
Rio 2016 was a breakthrough year for women’s sitting volleyball as Brazil won its very first medal in the sport with bronze. Lima was crucial in Brazil’s impressive performance on home soil.
In 2006, she was called to the Brazilian sitting volleyball team and has also featured on the team that won silver at Parapan American Games in 2015.
Lima was a substitute in the Rio 2016 bronze medal match against Ukraine and slowly began to prove herself as a starter, helping her squad secure silver at the 2019 Parapan American Games.
Liliane Mukobwankawe (RWA)
The captain of Rwanda guided her country to ParaVolley Africa Sitting Volleyball Championships gold medals in 2015 and 2019, and ensured they qualified for Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, respectively.
Rwanda made history by being the first women’s team from Sub-Sahara Africa to compete at a Paralympics in 2016, and they have continued to progress with the leadership of Mukobwankawe. She was voted the best spiker at the 2019 African Sitting Volleyball Championships.
Mukobwankawe was born with full function of her limbs but sustained an accident at the age of 7 that left her with a broken right femur. She sustained a further injury during an inter-school basketball competition in 2005 and was introduced to sitting volleyball in 2007.
Morteza Mehrzadselakjani (IRI)
The tallest Paralympian at Rio 2016 towering 2.46m will be out to ensure his country retains its Paralympic gold at Tokyo 2020.
In 2018, Mehrzadselakjani helped Iran regain the world title after eight years in Arnhem, Netherlands, and they accounted for defending champions and long-time rivals Bosnia and Herzegovina 3-0 in the final.
He was the second best spiker at Rio 2016 – his Paralympic debut – as Iran won its sixth Paralympic gold medal in sitting volleyball in the past eight Paralympic Games.
Iran and Bosnia and Herzegovina have played in the past five Paralympic Games gold medal matches.
Mehrzad, as he is known, continues to make an already strong Iranian team even better, with his highest block reach of 1.96m and highest spike reach of 2.30m creating plenty of headaches for opposition coaches.
He took up sitting volleyball in 2011, when a coach spotted him on television and identified his raw potential, calling up Mehrzad to the national side in March 2016.
Silvia Biasi (ITA)
The defensive specialist was instrumental in securing the women’s team a ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, via their first-ever historic European Championship medal with silver against Russia .
Italy booked its ticket to Tokyo with a comprehensive 3-0 win against Germany in the semi-finals to become the first Italian sitting volleyball team, men or women, to reach the Paralympics. Biasi starred as a receiver and set up several key plays that led to Italy’s triumph.
Gilberto Lourenco da Silva (BRA)
Da Sliva started playing sitting volleyball in 2006 and was part of the national team by 2007. He featured in Brazil’s first ever World Championship podium performance when they claimed silver at the 2014 event in Elblag, Poland. Brazil backed up that display with bronze at the 2018 Worlds.
The Rio 2016 host nation narrowly missed out on a Paralympic medal on home soil in an epic bronze medal battle, which they lost 3-2 to Egypt. But Da Silva helped them reach Tokyo 2020 with an impressive showing at the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, where Brazil defeated the USA 3-1 to qualify for a fourth successive Paralympic Games.
By Beau Greenway | For the IPC